Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A Novel

by daniel kehlmann, translated by ross benjamin
pantheon, 352 pages, $26.95

Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Tyll, like its title character, is full of dark surprises. Tyll ­Ulenspiegel, a legendary figure from German folklore, is a prankster, magician, and traveling performer. Throughout the ages, various story­tellers have presented him as an “avenger of peasants,” a “romantic loser,” or a “symbol of Satan.” And in each iteration, he has served as a mirror to human nature (Spiegel means “mirror”), using tricks and theatrics to reveal man to himself.

Kehlmann’s version takes place during the Thirty Years’ War. Against a backdrop of burned villages, heaped corpses, and felled forests, our antihero roams the continent, entertaining peasants and royalty alike. In dis­jointed episodes, we watch Tyll through the eyes of other characters: the fat count ­Martin von ­Wolkenstein, the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, ­Elizabeth Stuart, and ­Frederick V of the Palatinate. Through them, we come to see that Tyll—like all humans—is capable of being both a devil and a savior. He kills a man and steals his juggling balls, but he stays by another man’s side as he dies, abandoned by all ­others, in the snow. Which is the “true” Tyll?

The novel walks a fine line between fact and fiction, history and legend, nihilism and hope. The ambiguity is what makes Tyll so attractive. In today’s disenchanted age, Kehlmann’s mythical tale serves as a reminder that the world is still ­mysterious. We are fools if we try to believe otherwise.

—Veronica Clarke

Survival Is A Style:

by christian wiman
farrar, straus and giroux, 112 pages, $24

Church or sermon, prayer or poem: / the failure of religious feeling is a form.” So begins Christian Wiman’s new collection of poetry, Survival Is A Style. The poet goes on to tell us that such a failure is

                                                   a form
of love that, though it could not
the cataclysmic joy of its inception,
nevertheless preserves its own
        sane something.

Much of Wiman’s work has been an attempt to define this “own sane something,” but here he also acquaints us with the natural flux—the indefiniteness—of religious belief. As he says elsewhere, “You’re always needing to have another conversion.” This collection, Wiman writes, is “a space in which the grievers gather,” “a space for unbelief to breathe.”

Near the end, Wiman muses that “love’s the sacred name for loneliness,” and his mention of loneliness hits on a sure and certain element of the Christian life. We live now only in the hope of reconciliation and return, measured by the awareness that this life is marked mostly by mourning, and only rarely by “cataclysmic joy.” While Wiman’s poems don’t look explicitly to resurrection, they do express the raw reality of the life of faith. In a sea of religious sentimentalism, we could all do with a refresher on that.

—Moriah Speciale